Medical Ethics
Michael Green
Manuel Vargas
phone, office information

03 April. The Basic Argument Against Abortion
06 April. The Extreme View
08 April. The Voluntariness Objection
10 April. Samaritanism and objections
13 April. Warren's criticism, more voluntariness
20 April. Does Marquis have to say contraception is wrong?
20 April. Nicole's point, one more time.
22 April. Wrapping Up

Medical Ethics: 15 April. Fetuses aren't persons?


We mentioned two kinds of potential arbitrariness in Warren's criteria for membership in the moral community.

Michael's Bubbles

Michael thought that Warren's criteria were fine criteria for personhood. But he denied that persons are all the members of the moral community. So even if Warren were able to show that fetuses aren't persons, Michael believes, she would not have shown that they aren't members of the moral community. Since she needs to show they aren't members of the moral community in order to support the right to abortion, her argument fails.

Warren thinks that all members of the moral community are persons (see p. 54). She's at least right this far: persons are the only beings who are obviously members. Michael needs a reason for dislodging her from this position. He (or like-minded philosophers) should think of examples of beings who seem to be clearly in the moral community (with moral rights and perhaps moral duties) that are not persons.

Arbitrariness of individual criteria

Several people thought that some of the criteria are arbitrary. While we didn't have time to go into their reasons, I think they had examples in mind of people who fail to meet a particular criterion.

One thing Warren might say in response is that the collection of all five criteria aren't arbitrary. She might restrict herself to this claim: if a being fails to meet all of them, that being can't be a person. I assume that no one has a clear example of a person who fails on all five counts.

Jean expressed a general discomfort with any kind of line-drawing: for any criterion, it will be possible for a person to slide gradually from meeting the criterion to not meeting it. But we still call them persons, even after they slide away from meeting the criterion in question.

Jean's argument raises a number of sticky questions. First, one might take Warren's way out: what's important is the claim that a being is not a person if it meets none of the criteria. If I were to gradually slide away on all five points, you'd be hard pressed to call me a person. That's partly why people often ask to be taken off life-support if they became severely incapacitated and comatose -- they think they would already be dead at that point and don't want to linger as an undignified "mere" body.

Second, you may take a more hardheaded approach. We don't want to give up on our loved ones, but it's a fact that we can keep bodies alive much longer than we can keep persons alive. We're reluctant to admit this, but it's true. So our resistance to criteria of personhood is an understandable psychological defense, but nonetheless, inaccurate. There have to be some criteria of personhood, after all. That's how we distinguish persons from other things.

Third, you might think it's harder to lose the status of a person than it is to gain this status. I confess to thinking this, though I find it hard to explain why). Thus someone who slides away from these criteria is still called a person even if she is functionally similar to a being that we would call a non-person that never met the criteria in the first place. Sound funny to you? Well, I said I couldn't defend this claim; I do think that many people tacitly believe it, however.


1. Kate said that infants meet at least three of the criteria. Therefore, Warren's argument doesn't show it's legitimate to kill them.

2. Jesús and James said that seven month old fetuses meet these criteria at least as well as a newborn infant does.

3. Warren denied that a seven month old fetus meets any of the criteria.

Suppose Jesús and James are right (James had a pretty good argument, after all). Which way do you want to go?

If you agree with Kate, then infants do not fall outside of the moral community, but neither do seven month old fetuses.

If you agree with Warren, then infants do fall outside of the moral community and infanticide is just as legitimate as late-term abortions.

What about much younger fetuses?

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